// 30 March 2008

According to Live Science, a recent study by Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences suggests that "young men just find it difficult to tell the difference between women who are being friendly and women who are interested in something more".

About 70 percent of college women reported an experience in which a man mistook friendliness for a ‘sexual come-on’.

The study also found that it goes both ways for men – they mistake females’ sexual signals as friendly ones. The research suggests men have trouble noticing and interpreting the subtleties of non-verbal cues.

Pamela McAuslan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, commented, "I would say that there are many factors that could relate to men demonstrating insensitivity to women’s subtle non-verbal cues". These factors would include socialisation, gender roles and gender stereotypes, she said.

(via slashdot)

Comments From You

Redheadinred // Posted 30 March 2008 at 1:08 pm

While I am pleased that this study has recognised the importance of gender stereotypes and socialisation, I am a little worried that this will be used as another ‘men don’t understand no because they can’t understand no’ lies. It’s like saying to the woman ‘It’s up to you to handle the insensitivity, because men are naturally idiots. What do you expect?’ That’s bad enough, but the worst thing is when men (usually young men) embrace this myth of male idiocy in order not to take responsibility for their actions. Sacrificing your maturity and independence so you can be excused your actions. How self-demeaning can you get?

rose_hasty // Posted 30 March 2008 at 2:18 pm

Yeah, this echoes those horrible arguments too much for me too. I think it’s fairly obvious that women, who are told their whole lives they exist to be found sexy would tend to be hyper-sensitive to when someone sees them this way. Conversely men who are told their whole lives that they can’t fight their crazy sexual urges would tend to be less capable of focussing on what another person feels towards them. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop ourselves away from these supposed ‘gender destinies’. Also, any confusion I’ve had regarding these kind of things has meant I had to ask the person how they felt towards me, not shove my hands down a guys pants on the off-chance that was what he was after!

Anne Onne // Posted 30 March 2008 at 3:46 pm

It’s not just women, it’s all minorities (coloured people, LGBTQ community) who are oppressed who develop a heightened awareness of emotional cues. It’s a skill we’ve had to learn, being at the social mercy of groups in power, because whether you follow the whims (and notice when they change) of those who hold social power determines whether you are tolerated, praised or punished. There are many ways those who are not in power must adapt to get anything from those in power, and thsi is just one of them.

If straight white men, lack that awareness, I’m afraid it’s because they’ve been privileged to never need to read the body language of somone in a slightly threatening situation, and decide how to react without escalating the threat, or how to interrupt when they are being ignored or sidelined, or how to get taken seriously. I agree that men are socialised to not care about emotional cues from women (because, duh, women are supposed to provide sex on cue, and prove they explicitly don’t want sex, rather than consent!!!) and I don’t think we can really address inequality without acknowledging this.

That said, I am also leery of the sentiments where men are written off as being ‘incapable’ of learning something (because they’re not children, and shouldn’t be treated as such!), but if we can get people to really question WHY men haven’t needed to be emotional barometers, we might be able to make some progress.

I just hope that this gets framed carefully as not ‘men can’t learn/just don’t understand’ emotions, but explained WHY they haven’t needed to care, or rather, why women have had to, and how men can change to be more emotionally aware and supportive. I do think this links into the old gem where so many men whose wives divorce them had absolutely no idea it was coming. they had so little empathy and thought so little about how their wives felt. Clearly, the patriarchy hurts men, too, and this is a good example.

A different Helen // Posted 30 March 2008 at 8:35 pm

This study is counter to the results of another study published in 2006 in which the reverse was shown to be true. (

This earlier study apparently showed that “men not only do have a refined ability to hear verbal refusals that do not contain the word ‘no’, but also – and importantly – an equally refined ability to ‘hear’ the subtlest of non-verbal sexual refusals.”

I note in the study reported in Live Science, the subjects had to categorize images viewed on a computer screen, which I personally find really difficult. It would be interesting to know what method the researchers used in the 2006 study, but I was too stingy to pay to view the whole article! Anyone have access to back copies of this journal?

Qubit // Posted 31 March 2008 at 6:25 pm

A different Helen I am at a university so have access to journals. How would you like me to get the information to you?

I think this is being misinterpreted when being compared to men don’t understand no means no. It is more to do with initial contact and the paper itself suggests men are far more likely to interpret sexual signals as being friendly than the other way around. This would easily fit with men often being expected to make the first move and being insecure about whether a woman is interested. It is also comparing how straight men and women read women not how straight men read straight women and straight women read straight men which would give a better idea how this affects dating and relationships. The link on Live Science does seem to have a slightly anti men bias which seems unfair especially given the relatively small differences between genders.

A different Helen // Posted 31 March 2008 at 10:21 pm

Qubit, do not go to any trouble – I would just be interested to hear in a few sentences whether the 2006 study used a similar method or not, since it appeared to come to such different conclusions!

Shea // Posted 31 March 2008 at 11:48 pm

This is a western focused piece of research. In African and Latin countries there is a lot more physical touching between people, in both sexual and non-sexual ways (i.e greeting each other with a kiss or a hug) and therefore it is clearer when a person is interested in more than just a friendly relationship.

Have Your say

Comments are closed on this post

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds